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Teaching the First Drum Lesson

Teaching the First Drum Lesson

A Simple Plan for Finding Rhythm with Your New Student

by Lucas Gillan

First Lesson With an Experienced Student

For a student with some drumming experience, start off with some time-keeping. Whether the student is a beginner or advanced, ask them to “rock out” on a favorite beat while you assess their time-keeping ability and creativity.

If the student claims not to know any beats, then you already have a clear-cut goal for the first lesson: get a basic beat under the student’s fingers, to the level where he or she could whip it out on command.

For students who do a good job of “rocking out” on a favorite beat, you can use that beat as a jumping-off point. Experiment with creating longer phrases including fills, moving the right hand ride pattern to different parts of the drum set, etc.

You should also take some time to assess the student’s hand technique. Have him or her play single strokes on the snare at a moderate tempo, and take notes of technical issues that might need to be addressed. You can decide whether to address the issues immediately, or to get some momentum on the “fun stuff” first, saving technique for lesson two.

If there’s still time after working on time-keeping and addressing technique, ask the student to show you material they’ve been working on with their previous teacher or on their own, whether that’s music from school band, exercises from a method book, or a song.

Of course, you should also devote time to talking with the student about what he or she hopes to get out of drum lessons, and whether they have any specific goals (get into middle school jazz band, start a rock back with friends, develop rudimentary technique for marching band, become a master of blast beats, etc.)

Once you’ve gotten a grasp of the student’s technique, time-keeping ability, experience with other material, and goals, you should have a pretty clear picture of what to do going forward.

First Lesson With a Beginner Without a Drum Set

For a typical first lesson, the student will need a pair of sticks (bring extra in case they don’t have any), a practice pad (again, bring your own) and some manuscript paper/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like listening to.

For true beginners with zero experience, I recommend going into the first lesson with three goals: 1) establish an awareness of steady beat, 2) get started on developing good hand technique, and 3) teach them a basic drum beat.

I often start the lesson by having the student tap to the beat on their knees, along with a song played through a phone or laptop (I use “Billie Jean” because the beat is so straightforward and everyone loves Michael Jackson, right?)

Once the student can tap steady quarter notes on his or her knee along with MJ (or whomever you choose), it’s time to put some sticks in their hands. Demonstrate medium tempo single strokes and have them try copying you. Notice what aspects of the student’s natural technique is already good and what aspects will need help. For instance, maybe their grip looks good, but they’re jamming the stick into the pad without letting it bounce. Compliment them on what they’re already doing before going down the list of things they’re doing wrong.

All of the elements of good hand technique can seem overwhelming, so it’s good to come prepared with a handout detailing them all in one place. Mine looks like this:

Basic Hand Technique Checklist

Grip

  • Strong fulcrum (main balance point) between the index finger and thumb
  • Fulcrum situated at a good location on the stick (on Vic Firth sticks, right about where the American flag is)
  • Back fingers loosely wrapped around the stick
  • Stick going diagonally across the palm
  • Hands turned so that you see back of the hand, not top of the thumb
  • Sticks making a “V” shape
  • Arms relaxed and resting at side

Stroke

  • Use wrist, not arm
  • Knocking or throwing motion, not “karate chop” motion
  • Let stick bounce naturally, like a basketball
  • Move stick in a straight up-and-down motion

The teaching mantra “pick your battles” should be heeded here. The idea is to build the student’s awareness of good hand technique, not to demand perfect form by the end of lesson one. Once the student can play some single strokes with some evidence of steady beat and improved technique, move right along to learning a beat.

First, introduce the concept of counting in 4/4, having the student count “1,2,3,4” along with you. Then go back to “Billie Jean” (or your song of choice) and count along with the song, so the student can hear and get an intuitive understanding of meter.

Then, teach the basic quarter-note rock beat: while counting out loud, play the right hand on all four beats, the left hand on beats 2 & 4, and stomp your right foot on beats 1 & 3. It helps to play the right hand on a different surface than the left (such as the rim of a Remo practice pad, or even just a hardcover book) and to have a louder stomping surface (like tile or hardwood floor). To convince the student that this is indeed a real drum beat, demonstrate some more complex beats using the same surfaces and show him or her how cool that can sound.
If your student really excels at that, you can come full-circle and try playing the beat along with “Billie Jean.”

If you’ve helped the student to understand steady beat, good technique, meter, and even a basic drum beat, that’s a pretty great start! With very young students, it might take weeks to get all of those checked off, and with more adept students, you might get through all of that with time to spare, but either way, that’s a great foundation on which to build for future lessons.

First Lesson with a Beginner With a Drum Set

If the student is a total beginner and has a drum set, you can lean a little more on the drum beat portion of the lesson plan described above. Follow the instructions for learning steady beat and good hand technique, but be sure to watch the clock and allow time to get a basic beat happening on the drums.

After introducing the concept of meter by counting in 4 along to a song, tell the student that you’re about to learn a real rock drum beat. First, take a few minutes to teach the student the names of the different parts of the drum set and tell them that there will be a quiz on it next lesson. Then focus your attention on the hi-hat, snare, and bass drum.

As described above, teach the student the “basic quarter-note rock beat” by having him or her count “1,2,3,4” out loud, playing right hand strokes on the hi-hat (keeping the hi-hat closed with the clutch if necessary), and then adding the snare on beats 2 & 4, and eventually bass drum on 1 & 3. If the student does great with that beat, then you can try teaching the “basic eighth-note rock beat” by explaining that it’s the same thing, but with one extra hi-hat stroke sandwiched in between each of the existing hi-hat strokes. You should also teach how to count eighth notes, “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”.

If your student can play a either of the basic rock beats by the end of the lesson, they will feel a great sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going.

All material © Piano Power 2015

Teaching the First Voice Lesson

Teaching the First Voice Lesson

by Emily Volz

First voice lesson with an experienced student

For a student you “inherit” from another teacher, begin by asking the student about their singing background and what they were last working on in lessons. Have the student sing something they’re comfortable with, whether from their last recital or something else they may be singing more casually.

This is the perfect opportunity to assess their voice and habits in the following categories:

  • Body alignment and/or posture
  • Breath and breathing habits
  • Qualities of the voice: tone, range, vibrato/non vibrato

After hearing the student, gauge their sight-reading, and try some fun music theory activities to test their level of knowledge. Also find out if they have any piano background.

From this point, doing some more warm-ups may be necessary to assess the categories listed below.

Warm-ups for assessing range:

  • Slides or sirens from scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 to see how high and low they can sing comfortably.
  • Lip trills or buzzes, scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 also works, but sometimes this is difficult if a student holds tension in their face.

Warm-ups for stimulating/finding vibrato:

  • Long tones held on simple vowels like [o] “oooooh” in middle range of voice
  • Whole note exercise moving from scale degree 1?3? 1 on [ma] “maaah”

Warm-ups for assessing tone quality:

  • [a] [e] [i] [o] [u] “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo” on one pitch in middle range of voice
  • [ma] [me] [mi] [mo] [mu] and [na] [ne] [ne] [no] [no] also work well for connecting vowels

You shouldn’t need to bring any new books or assign a new song to work on. Bring new books for students after you’ve already met them (i.e., for the second lesson), rather than before. This way you can find out what style of music they’re interested in singing, and find a book that fits their voice type and age.

After warm-ups, it is best to have them explain their concept of breathing for singing. A great way to find out what the student knows is to ask them to show you (with their hand on their own body), where air goes in respiration. If the student does not know, or points to an area of the body that is not the lungs, see Breathing under “First Lesson With a Beginner” below.

First voice lesson with a beginner

For a typical first lesson, you’ll need only a manuscript/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like. For true beginners, I recommend doing the following:

Sing: See if the student is comfortable singing for you. If they’re shy or don’t have anything prepared, a good sample phrase to have them sing would be:

My country tis of thee

Assess: Move this phrase into different keys, higher and lower, to assess the three most basic and important concepts of healthy singing. Listen and watch for these three important concepts:

  • Body alignment and/or posture
  • Breath and breathing habits
  • Qualities of the voice: tone, range, vibrato/non vibrato

Vocalize: Continue doing warm-ups with some suggestions below for assessment.

Warm-ups for assessing range:

  • Slides or sirens from scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 to see how high and low they can sing comfortably.
  • Lip trills or buzzes, scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 also work,but sometimes this is difficult if a student holds tension in their face.

Warm-ups for stimulating/finding vibrato:

  • Long tones held on simple vowels like [o] “oooooh” in middle range of voice
  • Whole note exercise moving from scale degree 1?3? 1 on [ma] “maaah”

Warm-ups for assessing tone quality:

  • [a] [e] [i] [o] [u] “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo” on one pitch in middle range of voice
  • [ma] [me] [mi] [mo] [mu] and [na] [ne] [ne] [no] [no] also work well for connecting vowels

The most important concept to teach to a new beginner

Breathing!

Regardless of age, all students should be able to understand the basic anatomy and science of their bodies. Explain that breath is the foundation of all noise that we produce with our voices. Without air we wouldn’t be able to make any sound! Breathing allows us to whisper, speak, shout, and sing.

Simple breathing exercises

To find out what the student may know or misconstrue about breathing, ask them to show you, with their hands, where the air goes after respiration. It’s common for students to place their hand on their lower belly, which happens to be just intestines. Show the student, on your own body, that air enters the lungs, which are located behind the rib cage. Ask the student to take a few breaths and focus only on expanding the lungs underneath the rib cage.

Have students place hands around their rib cage. Ask them to close their eyes and breathe “wide” instead of “deep”. The goal should be to expand the ribs to full capacity with little movement in the lower belly. “Deeply” usually makes students raise their shoulders and puff out their lower abs in order to take in a decent breath.

As they breathe, check to make sure there is no raising of the shoulders, puffing of the lower belly, or loud gasping sounds. Breath should be inaudible.

The one thing that must happen during the first voice lesson

It is essential that your student learns part of a song by the end of their first lesson. Both students and parents will consider this a huge accomplishment, and will be much more enthusiastic about moving forward.

Bring a copy of an easy (i.e., non-strenuous) folk or pop song that you can teach a few phrases of (by ear if need be). For their first assignment, ask the student to practice a few phrases for the next lesson with their new way of breathing. Proper breathing will be a hard concept to master, considering the shallow chest-breathing we use daily for speech.

Extras!

As you’re moving along, make sure you’re keeping detailed notes about how to practice (how many times, how many minutes, etc.), so that they develop great practice habits from day one.

It’s also a good idea to record their warm-ups and their songs on a phone or tablet, and then email or text them to the student and/or parent. This will help the singer practice if they’re not skilled enough at piano to play their own warm-ups or vocal melodies. Students also really enjoy hearing their own voice — and their vocal progress — through recordings.

Final Note

Whether you’re starting with a new student or an experienced student, consider your first month an extended job interview: demonstrate an extra degree of professionalism in your appearance and your teaching, and be present and engaged when communicating with students and parents.

All material © Piano Power 2017

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